First, let me apologize to all those walkers, joggers, fellow cyclists, feral LimeBikes, and unsuspecting squirrels I unintentionally terrorized this morning in Tower Grove Park.
Also, I’m pretty sure the landscaping can be repaired — except maybe that one sapling. (I hope it wasn’t a rare specimen!)
In my defense, I did ring my little silver bell and shriek like a school girl when going down hills. I feel that was fair warning. But your panicky scrambling could mean I’m wrong…
In my defense, it’s been more than 30 years since I was on a bike and I didn’t really know what I was doing.
Well, maybe not 30 years….
I did ride my bike around the park on Tuesday. And once last fall. And there was that aborted attempt on a rental bike in Bruges in 1999. But I blame the resulting international incident on the seat that wouldn’t stay up.
Cuz Belgian chocolate….duh!
But it’s been more than 30 years since I rode a bike with anything like regularity or competence.
Last summer, I was inspired to buy a bike after watching the St. Louis World Naked Bike Ride roll by for the second year in a row.
I’ve been working for several years to get more fit and admired all those scantily clad bikers who completed the 13-mile ride in sweltering July heat.
So, I drove to Spoked Bikes and Stuff — a hipster bike shop if ever there was one — bought a bike and vowed to join in next year. That is, this year. 2018. In about seven weeks. Eeek! (Squirrels everywhere tremble in fear!)
And it’s not like I’ve never been on a bike. I owned assorted bikes all through childhood and adolescence. I have fond memories of riding with no hands — Leo and Kate on the prow of the Titanic-style — down Chapman Avenue hill at 5 a.m. on my way to open the Carl’s Jr. I worked at all through high school.
But I have absolutely no memory of knowing anything about bike safety or maintenance — repairing flat tires, adjusting saddles, tensioning brake cables, etc.
And I’m certain I never wore a helmet. (It was the 70s, give my parents a break!)
So, I’m not really a noob. (Except, I totally am!)
For reasons I cannot fully explain, I was absolutely terrified to get on my bike.
Like, scared shitless. Shaking. The word ‘no’ (in several languages) passed through my mind.
Maybe I should just accept that bikes are for young and/or skinny and/or athletic people, and the bicycle ‘ship’ had, for me, already sailed…many years (and pounds) ago.
But facing the prospect of endless shaming by The Husband for dropping the better part of a grand on a bike (and accessories) that I never rode, I sallied forth — from the basement to the backyard — to surveil my wheeled steed.
Who knew there were so many little things on a bike requiring attention: brake levers, up gear-shifter, down gear-shifter, kickstand, blinking lights (front and back, thank you!), cable locks, rattly fenders, and oppressively tight ‘safety’ helmet?
All of which are secondary to steering the handle bars and circular operation of the pedals which, by some inexplicable magic of physics, both propels a bike forward and keeps it upright.
I’m supposed to operate all this and avoid cars, joggers, other bikers, landscaping, and urban fauna? How do people do this? And with anything approaching grace, style, or elegance? I can’t do this. Too old, fat, out of shape. Byeeee!
(Cue The Husband’s shaming voice in my head…grrrr! Don’t get married!)
So, I walked my bike the half block to Tower Grove Park. Yes, that’s right. I walked my bike. A half block. To a park. So I could ride my bike. In said park.
Again in my defense, there’s a major street between our house and that park. And if you knew St. Louis drivers (I see you!) you’d know why I walked my bike instead of rode it.
But this speaks to my fear of riding a bike again after so many years. I won’t even think about riding on an urban side street before building up my confidence in the relatively sheltered bike paths of our local park.
That first ride was marked by sheer terror as I plunged forward with no protection, wind whistling past my ears, scrambling to simultaneously work gear shifters, brake levers, and pedals (two!) while navigating the bumps and cracks of a poorly maintained asphalt bike path.
I made it halfway ‘round the park — MapMyRun says that’s about 2 miles — before turning back, walking my bike across the busy street, and returning it to the basement.
I had all the intention of riding again that summer, but it never happened. The impact of that first short ride made it easy to find plenty of other things to do: mow the yard, weed the garden, go to the gym, etc.
I did buy a new bicycle saddle and some other accessories, but didn’t install them. But the bike sat in the basement all winter, gathering dust and losing air in its tires.
What happened to get me back on the bike?
I suppose at some level I was unwilling to be conquered by my fear. There aren’t very many things I allow to frighten me into avoidance anymore.
(OK, fine, spiders. I draw the line at spiders. But have you seen them? Satan’s spawn!)
But I was also embarrassed that something that used to be so easy and natural was now so humbling and terrifying. My fear of riding my bike was a proxy for my fear of getting old and the physical infirmity it so often implies.
And then there was the economics.
I didn’t want the bike to join the pile of racquetball and tennis racquets I’d bought, with the best intentions of returning to the one kind of ball sport I enjoyed as a kid.
Finally, it was my dream of completing the 2018 World Naked Bike Ride. Not so much the naked part — I’m far too civic minded to inflict my physical form on fellow citizens’ eyesight!
It was more the idea of partaking in WNBR riders’ collective nose-thumbing at St. Louis’ notorious (and notoriously denied) prudery and provincialism.
But the realization that training time was slipping away took a while to sink in. Not in spring; not until nearly mid-summer.
But eventually I came to understand that I needed to make time or it just wasn’t going to happen!
So, I prepped the bike. I replaced the seat with something cushier for my ample tush. And attached my fancy-ass new Timbuk2 under-seat bag.
I filled the tires, checked the brakes, reminded myself how the bell and shifters worked, and took it for a spin.
To my surprise, it was less terrifying than the first time!
That time I made it twice as far, the entire way around the park, which MapMyRun says is 3.92 miles. But I figure with all the squirrel avoidance, it was closer to 4 miles.
That’s twice as far as I’ve ever walked on a treadmill at the gym. It was like I was a peloton of one in my personal Tour de France! Triomphe!
This morning, I made it round the park twice. That’s like 8 miles. My route even involved a little side trip down a previously-unknown path. That involved a close encounter with a mowing machine and a bike path that ended in a brick wall.
(I now have a heightened appreciation for fully-functioning caliper brakes!)
I even survived a moment three-quarter’s through when my saddle decided to spontaneously adjust itself. But, like a pro, I had packed a multi-tool in my little Timbuk2 bag.
And, like a pro, I was able to loosen a bolt, adjust the seat, and re-tighten everything without devolving into hysteria or tears.
(Being mocked by squirrels didn’t help much!)
I don’t know if I’ll be up to riding in the World Naked Bike Ride this year.
It’s quite a long ride (with a lot of 👀 distraction I really don’t need while pedaling).
But I’m definitely no longer going to be cowed by a piece of nineteenth-century transportation technology. As long as the weather permits, and the squirrels are nimble, I’m going to ride that bike.
At some point, I might even ride it to the park (and not just in it!)
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Michael J. Murphy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He usually writes about weighty gender and sexuality issues, but occasionally digresses into silly personal stories (like this one).